These later Escorts are something of a well kept secret due to the terrible name of the earlier models. By '96, the Escort was a well built, decent handling family car, but by then attentions had turned to the forthcoming Focus, and nobody cared. Great when you're buying them used though.
The 1.6 "Zetec" engine pulls well for what it is and is reasonably refined. The car actually handles quite nicely within the scope of a family hatchback and the steering has a fair amount of feel. It's no hot hatch (or Focus), but when you've got kids in the back, nobody with an ounce of responsibility would drive in a manner to notice the difference.
The interior is plasticky, but very robust and perfectly functional. The seats are comfortable and the driving position, like most Fords, is comfortable for several hundred miles at a time. The car is no more tiring or "hard work" on a run than a modern Focus, and gobbles up motorway miles with the best of them. The boot is a useful size too.
Reliability has been first class. I service the car myself using genuine Ford parts (cheaper than most manufacturer's 3rd party stuff if you buy them from factors) and use genuine Ford 5W/30 oil. The engine hasn't missed a beat, runs smoothly and quietly, and uses about half a litre of oil every 6,000 miles.
The real beauty of this car is that it has cost me virtually nothing to own and run since I've had it. I paid £1750 for the car in 2001 and it's still worth a grand today. A standard service costs me about £40 in parts, a major about £75. It's an easy car to work on too, costs peanuts to insure, and with "kids in the back" driving, regularly returns 40 mpg.
If you just want no frills, reliable transport, and don't expect it to be as sharp as a hot hatch, the Escort does virtually nothing wrong.